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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Doctor Who S36E9: Empress of Mars

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 9
Empress of Mars.

So, long time readers or really anyone who read last week's review may recall that I said that this episode would almost certainly be pretty middling and unremarkable, as most of the series has been so far. Well, colour me pleasantly surprised, because I actually really enjoyed this episode -- it's not the best episode that this show has ever done, but it's definitely among the best ones this series, at least, which honestly came as a shock.

This episode is written by Mark Gatiss, who along with Moffat I think is the only writer who has remained with the show for the entirety of New Who, with his first episode, The Unquiet Dead, having been the third episode of Russell T. Davies' first series. Traditionally, Gatiss' work has always been pretty mediocre: Most of his episodes are eminently forgettable, and the ones that aren't are only memorable for how they failed to follow through on interesting concepts.

In this episode, Gatiss actually does manage to follow through (sort of) on a pretty interesting idea: What happens when imperialist, Victorian soldiers encounter the Viking-esque Ice Warriors, and who is the villain in that situation? Doctor Who often sets up an expectation that we should be rooting for the humans automatically (even going so far as to, whenever humans are villainous, distance them from regular-flavour Earth humans), so an episode that actually puts a question mark over that isn't a terrible idea at all.

Catchlove, who just looks evil.

After NASA discovers a message on Mars, the Doctor and Bill go to investigate, and discover a Victorian expedition to Mars using Ice Warrior technology, in the hopes of bringing treasure back to Earth and making all of them rich. However, their Ice Warrior, Friday, has a secret agenda: Reawakening his brethren, including his queen, Iraxxa, who quickly declares war on humanity. In the chaos, ambitious officer Catchlove seizes power from more level-headed colonel Godsacre, with potentially destructive results.

So, I qualified my statement that Gatiss followed through on his interesting idea with a 'sort of,' mostly because while there's clearly an intention to make a point about Britain's imperialist history -- and characters talk about it a few times -- it gets lost, somewhat, in Ice Warrior  shenanigans, and Godsacre's character arc, and Nardole trying to get the TARDIS to return to Mars. I appreciate the attempt, but this is one of those episodes that might have benefited from being a two-parter, or just from being simplified some, shifting the focus more squarely onto British imperialism.

Instead, what happens is that Gatiss clearly demarcates the conflict -- do we side with the familiar even when it's clearly in the wrong -- but then never quite manages to string it out over an entire episode, because there's stuff about Ice Warriors, and Godsacre being hanged in the past, and Nardole having to form an alliance with Missy that's going to come back and bite them later. All of the elements in the episode are interesting, and any one of them could potentially work as episodes in their own right, but as it is, the episode is overstuffed, and the main moral dilemma gets lost more and more as the episode goes on.

I really don't like the design of the Ice Warriors.

For what it is, though, it's a good episode: The conflict between draconian warrior queen Iraxxa and smarmy physical-manifestation-of-British-imperialism Catchlove makes for a not uncompelling one, where Iraxxa presents a more present physical threat while Catchlove is by far the more malicious and destructive of the two -- and their opposite numbers, Friday and Godsacre, both viewing themselves as failures and trying to make amends, are juxtaposed pretty well with each other as well.

It's all meant to set up the climactic moment where Godsacre offers up his life and is in turn accepted as an Ice Warrior, and again, I feel like his character arc could have easily been an episode in its own right, without necessarily needing to be bundled in with everything else in this episode.

We also get some actual character development for Bill, as we see her attempting -- with some success -- to take on the Doctor's role as a diplomat, attempting to negotiate with the Ice Queen. It's a turn that builds nicely on previous set-up for Bill being someone who's pretty inclined to talk things out when she cans, and in a series that has horribly under-served an interesting character, it's a refreshing change.

The Doctor and Martha.

Next episode will apparently take us back to Stonehenge, and involves Romans and some kind of tentacle monster and something about the time vortex and all the people the Doctor has killed, so I'm guessing this is going to be the first in another three-parter that will set us up for the Doctor to regenerate at the end of this series.

Speaking of, I'm surprised that we still don't know who the next Doctor is. He's meant to be regenerating in episode twelve, the fact that we don't know yet makes it genuinely possible that we may have no idea until it happens, and I'd be pretty happy with that.

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